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Lilacs in the Woods? Clues to a Vanished Homestead

A lilac bush blooms surrounded by woods.
Lilacs blooming in a Montana forest tell of a house that once stood nearby.

This lilac bush turned a family hike through the woods into a find-the-clues game of discovery.

Lilacs are not native to Montana. If you find one growing in the wild you can be sure it was put there, on purpose.

Perhaps by a long-ago homesteader who planted it outside a home that’s since vanished?

What stories lie behind it?

Broken concrete, part of an old foundation, pokes out from forest grasses and brush,
The broken concrete of a doorsill is the most visible part of a foundation filled in and mostly overgrown.

Not far away we found a few paving stones. And then the remainders of a foundation wall.

Old apples trees still grow at the edge of a mountain meadow, survivors from a time when people lived nearby.
Old apple trees hang on in a mountain meadow, more evidence of the home that once stood nearby.

And then apple trees. What was left of someone’s long-ago orchard.

Each discovery helped us piece together a puzzle and took us a step further into the past.


Dig Deeper

To learn more about such reminders of yesterday, see this story by James Hagengruber in Montana Outdoors, the magazine of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks: http://bit.ly/TrophyTrees


For Your Writer’s Toolbox

What fascinates you can fascinate your fictional characters, also. Ground their actions in fact—the great stuff you learn researching (and playing)–and then imbue them with passion.

Here’s how I put archaeology to use in Mountain Solo.

The narrator is teenager Tess Thaler, who is helping her stepmother, Forest Service historian Meg Thaler, hunt for a homestead long lost to the woods.


“Meg?” I call. “Does rhubarb grow wild?”

“No!” Meg shouts, hurrying to me. “It does not!”

Leaning down, Meg peers at the plant’s big leaves and scraggly stalks as though they’re the most gorgeous things she’s ever seen. She says, “In the old days this plant would have provided jellies and pies, protected gains scurvy. . .” She pauses, looking around. “Assuming the Bottners did live here, then we’re probably standing in their kitchen garden, which certainly would have been placed handy to the house.”

She points out the area she thinks most likely to have contained the homestead buildings. “Let’s work it in a grid, you taking one side and me the other. We’ll walk up in one direction, return a couple of feet over, and so on.”

“What about trees?”

“Go around them, but do your best to keep to the grid. And if you see anything . . . anything . . .”

  –Mountain Solo by Jeanette Ingold